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Never Such Innocence at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Never Such InnocenceThere’s a first time for everything, as they say, and hearing ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations on a piano, played very ably by Gamal Khamis, to close out proceedings in Never Such Innocence, was a novel experience. It has a certain poignancy, particularly in this studio theatre space, that wouldn’t be achieved a large concert hall with a symphony orchestra at full tilt. Christopher Kent, drawing from a large body of published poetry from both sides of the Atlantic, also guides the audience through the wartime movements, letters home and diary entries of Private Percy O’Key (1896-1918) of the 13th Batallion of The King’s Regiment (Liverpool).

Many in the audience, including yours truly, had some familiarity with the poetry of the Great War, and not just the lines from Robert Laurence Binyon’s (1869-1943) ‘For The Fallen’, quoted at every national act of remembrance (‘They shall grow not old’). I wonder, having studied some of the writings of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), what Owen would think of being placed on the same billing as Jessie Pope (1868-1941), whose work ‘The Call’ was recited with the positive gusto the writer intended. But then, to even begin to properly understand the anger and frustration in Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, it is necessary to know who ‘a certain Poetess’ a pre-publication draft of the latter poem was, and what she represented.

Nine pieces of music are played over the course of the evening, and as there is not so much as a video projection to accompany the music, the show overall quickly starts to feel like one of those BBC radio plays where a few minutes of spoken word alternates with a few minutes of music without lyrics. On balance, the music allows the audience to pause and reflect on what has just been said and recited. The lighting, as befits the production, remains static, and while some shows about the First World War go so far as to try to portray the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916, this show instead relies on a calm but authoritative description of the scale of devastation.

For all the words of the published and critically acclaimed writers, it is the writings of Private O’Key that seemed to strike hardest, together with the official letters to his mother informing, in the first instance, that he is missing in action, and in the second instance, confirming he was killed in action or otherwise from wounds sustained in battle. Some of the families of fallen soldiers got telegrams – so much expressed in so few words.

Unlike so many war-time shows, Never Such Innocence doesn’t stop at the relief and celebrations that came with the armistice. I won’t give too much away, suffice to say that the impact and legacy of those taken so young continues more than a century later. The personal and the political, the high spirits of the troops in the trenches and the devastating ramifications of ill-judged tactics, the mass cemeteries of northern France and the infinitely smaller resting place of Private O’Key and his comrades who died in Courcelles-le-Comte – it’s all there in this most heartfelt and fascinating production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

One hundred years after the devastating events of the First World War, and with Europe again facing a time of uncertainty, Christopher Kent and Gamal Khamis look back at the writing and music that emerged from the period, juxtaposing the words of writers such as Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon and Vera Brittain with piano music by composers including Elgar, Ravel, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Ivor Gurney.

In a moving and thought-provoking sequence, they also trace the individual story of nineteen-year-old conscript Private Percy O’Key through his real-life letters and diaries. It is a compelling journey from innocence to loss, told with unflinching clarity and compassion.

Never Such Innocence
Devised and performed by Christopher Kent and Gamal Khamis.
One performance: Sunday 18 November at 7.30pm


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